Making too much of Mandarin is a `fundamental error'

28th March 2014 at 00:00
Promise of jobs isn't enough to hook students, expert says

It is a "fundamental error" to make students learn languages such as Mandarin merely because they are perceived as being economically important, the director of a prominent European languages organisation has warned.

Young people need to have their own "intrinsic" motivation for learning languages to be successful in mastering them, rather than being driven by external factors such as economics or better job prospects, said Sarah Breslin, executive director of the European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML).

"There's been this idea of we should all be learning Chinese instead of, say, French, but that is a fundamental error, which overlooks the fact that learning any language is useful," she told TES. "Young people respond to different languages in different ways - the key is to offer them choice. Schools should have the capacity to teach a variety of languages."

Ms Breslin said that all children should learn at least two foreign languages, but that pressuring children to take certain subjects was the wrong approach. "Politicians can get into the trap of pushing for languages that are the most economically important, but if you make that your defining factor, you are likely to get into difficulties. People are not as likely to learn well if they haven't got their own reasons for learning."

Ms Breslin - former director of the Confucius Institute for Scotland's Schools, which promotes Chinese language and culture in schools - is a supporter of children learning Mandarin, but she believes the economic case alone should not be the driving force. She pointed out that schools rushed to include Japanese lessons in the 1980s, but this emphasis shifted as Japan's economic boom faded. The most important thing for schools to do, she added, was to emphasise the skills gained through language learning, not just the usefulness of the languages.

Her comments come in the week that ECML hosted a high-level conference on language education in Graz, the Austrian city where it is based, attended by academics and policymakers. Henry Widdowson, emeritus professor of education at the University of London and a specialist in language learning, agreed there was a danger in singling out individual languages.

He has argued for a broader approach, where schools would teach children about language as a whole, rather than getting them to learn specific languages or vocabulary. This would help students to develop the capacity to learn languages when they needed them in the future, he told TES.

The current system, where students aim for the ambitious standard of "native speaker", was very discouraging for learners, with exams being "effectively measures of comparative failure", Professor Widdowson explained.

"There's no point in saying let's put Mandarin in schools because Mandarin is important to economic development," he added. "How much Mandarin will people actually learn? And even if they learn some, by the time they need to use it, they will probably have forgotten it all."

The call for children to learn about a broad spectrum of languages was made as the Language Trends Survey 2013-14, released this week, revealed that a quarter of English schools had no member of staff with anything above a GCSE in a foreign language.

In England, there is an ongoing drive to train 1,000 Mandarin teachers through the Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institute for Schools, which is part of the University of London's Institute of Education. UK business organisation the CBI released a survey in 2013 showing that French and German are still the languages most in demand by employers, although their popularity is on a downward trend.

Earlier this month, South Africa announced that it had struck up an agreement with the Chinese government to develop a new Chinese curriculum in its schools, although studying Mandarin will not be compulsory.

Tom Bowen, assistant principal responsible for languages at the UCL Academy in North London - where Mandarin lessons are compulsory for all students and staff - said the economic factor could provide valuable motivation for some children.

"Aspiration is increasingly linked to material wealth, and students are aware that wealth and success are important," he said. "If you can link to economic gain in the future then this is bound to appeal to some, especially teenagers."

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